Monday 11th April 2016

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One of my favourite quotes this week – thrown up by my twitter feed – went something like: ‘All I want in life is enough time to write …. until I have enough time to write. Then all I want to do is watch television.’ It’s a good, sobering thing to have at the back of your mind as you tell yourself that just one more episode on Netflix won’t do any harm …

Actually, I’m being a bit hard on myself … I have done a lot more writing in the last few weeks than binge-watching. The major thing is that I finished the final draft, the working copy of Year Without Summer, the play we’re producing for the Brighton Fringe. To be honest, I’m not crazy about the title – to me, it sounds a little too much like a Kathy Lette book. No disrespect to that author, but I do / did have a concern that a thing called Year Without Summer might make potential audience members think of the touching story of a hard nosed lawyer who is forced to take extended leave on the Cornish coast, where she finds herself having to choose between the hunky boat repairman, and her slightly nebbish school sweetheart. Actually, that’s not a terrible story, I may end up writing it anyway.

But, YWS is done – finally. There are a couple of minor edits to be made, but they’ll come out of rehearsals, rather than the writer not being able to quite leave the damn script alone. As I’m directing my own work, I’ve made it quite clear to the cast that I’ve had the writer taken out behind the shed and shot – I, as writer, no longer get a say: it’s all down to us now to ever make it good, or screw it up. It has been something of a wrench to give up the research bit of the process, and to cut out many fantastic details that survived at least three drafts. One of my favourite books – in fact, quite possibly the one that ended up being the engine behind me writing Year Without Summer – was Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws, a simply gorgeous ‘double biography’ of both Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, in which there was a film-to-be-made on pretty much every page (my favourite story provides details on how to invent a conveniently  deceased husband with the help of your lesbian best friend, thereby protecting a single mother from public judgement).  I’d for a long time known of the basic details of Villa Diodati, where Byron had urged the likes of Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin to come up with ghost stories – which essentially resulted in Frankenstein. I think I was previously less aware of Claire Clairmont. Certainly, she is much less familiar than anyone else in the party – even John Polidori has much recognition value because of his influence on the vampire mythos. But it was essentially this that ended up being the engine behind what I wanted to talk about in the play: Claire had been the lover of Byron, basically discarded, and inviting him to Geneva with the promise of meeting Percy Shelley: in other words, if Claire had not been so desperate to win Byron back, it’s reasonably likely that Frankenstein wouldn’t have been written. And, reverse engineering that slightly, considering that Mary Wollstonecraft fell out of favour and public recognition for a good few decades, it’s at least possible (although far less likely) that if Mary Shelley hadn’t written her book, we might have taken a lot longer to restore her mother to the status she currently enjoys.

I had intended, in previous drafts, to have Mary and Claire be the ones that really drive the plot – to make Byron, Shelley and Polidori purely supporting characters who rarely if ever appeared (this appealed to the sadistic part of me: I quite liked the idea of audience members buying a ticket to see a brooding poet – tall, dark and handsome – and instead have two women discuss feminist polemic). It didn’t quite work out like that, basically because – as many others before me have no doubt discovered – once you allow Byron a moment on stage, it’s very difficult to get him to shut the hell up. Nonetheless, I’m quite pleased with how Mary and Claire hold their own against their poets.

Since starting the script, I’ve discovered a good few other adaptations of that summer. Timagehe most infamous is Gothic, which drenches the whole thing in a drug panic, although one of my favourites was Mary Shelley,  which rather cutely details the months leading up to, and directly after, summer 1816 – but has the events of Villa Diodati happen offstage, almost like a ‘deleted scene’. It’s actually remarkably effective.

What I was worried about was that somebody would have got to the idea before me – of getting into the plot via Claire, as opposed to Byron or Shelley. But we seem to be OK. I’ll attempt to keep you updated on how things are going.

Tickets for Year Without Summer can be booked here.

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